Dr. Isaac Kohane: Making Our Data Work for Us!

Last weekend, Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, FACMI, Marion V. Nelson Professor of Biomedical Informatics, and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School received the 2020 Morris F. Collen Award of Excellence at the AMIA 2020 Virtual Annual Symposium. This award – the highest honor in informatics – is bestowed to an individual whose personal commitment and dedication to medical informatics has made a lasting impression on the field.

Throughout his career, Dr. Kohane has worked to extract meaning out of large sets of clinical and genomic data to improve health care. His efforts mining medical data have contributed to the identification of harmful side-effects associated with drug therapy, recognition of early warning signs of domestic abuse, and detection of variations and patterns among people with conditions such as autism.

As the lead investigator of the i2b2 (Informatics for Integrating Biology & the Bedside) project, a National Institutes of Health-funded National Center for Biomedical Computing initiative, Dr. Kohane’s work has led to the creation of a comprehensive software and methodological framework to enable clinical researchers to accelerate the translation of genomic and “traditional” clinical findings into novel diagnostics, prognostics, and therapeutics.

Dr. Kohane is a visionary with a motto:  Make Our Data Work for Us! Please join me in congratulating Dr. Kohane, recipient of the 2020 Morris F. Collen Award of Excellence.

Hear more from Dr. Kohane in this video.

Video transcript (below)

The vision that has driven my research agenda is that we were not doing our patients any favors by not embracing information technology to accelerate our ability to both discover new findings in medicine, and to improve the way we deliver the medicine.

What does “make our data work for us” mean? It means that let’s not just use it for the real reason most of it is accumulated at present, which is in order to satisfy administrative or reimbursement processes. Let’s use it to improve health care.

Using just our claims data, we can actually predict – better than genetic tests – recurrence rates for autism. It’s the ability to show, with these same data, that drugs used for preventing immature birth in the genetic form are just as effective as those that are brand name; 40 times as expensive. It’s, as we’ve seen most recently, the ability to pull together data around pandemics within weeks, if and only if, we understand the data that’s spun off our health care systems in the course of care.

And finally, as exemplified by work on FHIR, which was funded by the Office of the National Coordinator and then the National Library Medicine, the ability to flow the data directly to the patient to finally allow patients’ access to their data in a computable format to allow decision support for the patient without going through the long loop of the health care system.

Because the NIH and NLM have invested in working on real-world sized experiments in biomedical informatics, on supporting the education of the individuals who drive those projects, and in supporting the public standards that are necessary for these projects to work and to scale, they’ve established an ecosystem that now is able to deliver true value to decision makers, to clinicians, and now to patients, as we’re seeing with a SMART on FHIR implementation on smartphones.

So, for those of you — the biomedical informaticians of the future who are clinicians — I strongly recommend that you don’t wait for someone else to fix the system. You have the most powerful tools to affect medicine, information processing tools. So, don’t wait to get old. Don’t wait to be recognized. You have the tools. Get in there, help change medicine. We all depend on you!

Congratulations, AAHSL Fellows!

For almost 20 years, NLM and the Association of the Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) have worked together to support the development of the next generation of medical library leaders through a joint NLM and AAHSL Leadership Fellows Program.

Since its launch, this program has matched fellows and mentors in a one-year leadership development program that has been a tremendous success. Inspired by the visionary leadership of former NLM Deputy Director Betsy Humphreys, NLM sought to answer the challenge of how to best prepare professionals to lead academic health science libraries of the future. NLM builds on this tradition of support by offering the Associate Fellowship Program, which is an early career training program for medical librarians

To continue this tradition and respond to the needs of experts in the academic health science programs, NLM leadership established a program to attract and develop future leaders. The NLM/AAHSL Leadership Fellows Program provides a combination of in-person and virtual learning experiences for selected fellows and offers the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in a variety of learning settings.

Fellows are paired with mentors who are directors of academic health sciences libraries. Mentors, who work closely with their fellows throughout the year and host a visit to their library, are the backbone of the program. Their participation makes it possible for fellows to be exposed to additional leadership styles and areas of expertise. Mentors continuously share that they too benefit from the program and appreciate the opportunity to reflect and learn from the cohort. Since the program began in 2002, 49 percent of fellow graduates have assumed director positions. 

Last week, I was delighted to celebrate (virtually) the culmination of this year’s program:

Front row (Fellows):
Emily Glenn, MSLS; Erika Sevetson, MS; Gail Kouame, MLIS; Marisa Conte, MLIS, AHIP; Emily Hurst, MSLS, AHIP
Back row (Mentors):
Anne Seymour, MSIS; Debra Rand, MS, AHIP; Rick Fought, EdD, MLIS, AHIP; Kelly Gonzalez, MSIS, MBA; Rose Bland, MA, MPA, AHIP

Emily Jill Glenn, MSLS
Associate Director, Education & Research Services, McGoogan Library of Medicine
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 

Mentor:  Anne K. Seymour, MSIS, Director
Welch Medical Library
Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, Baltimore, MD 

Erika L. Sevetson, MS
Director of Academic Engagement for Health, Biomedical and Physical Sciences
Brown University Library, Providence, RI 

Mentor:  Debra Rand, MS, AHIP
Associate Dean for Library Services
Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and Corporate Director of Libraries for Northwell Health, Hempstead, NY

Gail M. Kouame, MLIS
Assistant Director for Research & Education Services, Robert B. Greenblatt, MD Library Augusta University, Augusta, GA

Mentor:  Rick L. Fought, EdD, MLIS, AHIP
Associate Professor and Director, Health Sciences Library
University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis, TN  

Marisa L. Conte, MLIS, AHIP
Assistant Director, Research and Informatics, Taubman Health Sciences Library
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI

Mentor:  Kelly R. Gonzalez, MSIS, MBA
Assistant Vice President for Library Services, Health Sciences Digital Library and Learning Center
UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX

Emily J. Hurst, MSLS, AHIP
Deputy Director and Head of Research and Education, VCU Libraries, Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA

Mentor:  Rose L. Bland, MA, MPA, AHIP
Director, Shimberg Health Sciences Library
University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

NLM’s commitment to this program has been steadfast, and the program’s continued success would not have been possible without the work that takes place in the field.

NLM/AAHSL Leadership Fellows are selected through a national competition, based on career directions and focused needs in their areas. As is typical in many mid-career mentoring programs, fellows do not need to interrupt their current career commitments to participate in the NLM/AAHSL Fellows Program.

Fellows spend twelve months with an expert mentor who is selected, in part, because of the match between what the fellow needs and what the mentor can provide. During most years, except for this year due to COVID-19, fellows typically engage in in-person exchanges, an intensive leadership institute, distance learning, and hands-on site visits. Fellows and mentors gather in Bethesda, MD for a capstone experience that includes a one-day visit to the National Library of Medicine. In addition to taking a deep dive into the functions of NLM, the fellows and their mentors can spend more time together face-to-face.

NLM recognizes that the health information needs of biomedical researchers and the general public rely heavily on the availability of professional health science libraries and the skills of well-trained medical librarians. As the world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing face of health science libraries, I remind all health science librarians of the NLM’s commitment to work together with you to elevate the resources provided by health sciences libraries to the world.

Diagram of NLM's Guiding Principles which are Resilience, Relevance, and Reinvention.
NLM’s guiding principle: Resilience, Relevance, and Reinvention.

We embrace a commitment to remain relevant to the evolving health information needs of our stakeholders, which requires a great deal of resilience and a willingness to reinvent the way we do our work.

What should academic health science libraries of the future look like, and what kind of leaders will they need?


Due to the immediate and long-term impact of COVID-19, the NLM/AAHS Leadership Fellows Program will be on a hiatus for one year. There will not be a 2020/2021 class. AAHSL plans to open applications for the 2021/2022 class in spring 2021. The program will complete its events for the current 2019/2020 class. Please visit the AAHSL website for future opportunities.

Meet NLM’s Newest Investigator: Lauren Porter, PhD, Researches “Transformer-Like” Proteins

Recently, I introduced you to Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, one of NLM’s new tenure-track investigators, who is developing computational methods to advance our understanding of the human microbiome, which plays a very important role in our health.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lauren Porter, PhD, a Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator in the NLM’s Intramural Research Program.

Dr. Porter researches fold-switching proteins. Much like the fictional Transformers, robots that can change into different machines depending on the circumstances, these proteins can change their structures and functions in response to changes in their environment.

Proteins play many critical roles in the body. They carry oxygen in our blood, digest the food we eat, and help our eyes detect light.

A number of fold-switching proteins are associated with diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders, and bacterial and viral infections. Right now, very little is known about how these proteins work.

At NLM, Dr. Porter is using data-driven approaches to identify fold-switching proteins and reveal their biological roles, which could lead to the development of new treatments for disease.  

Uniquely, Dr. Porter has a joint appointment at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where she directs an experimental laboratory. This allows her to participate in the entire process of scientific discovery: her data-driven calculations help her to generate hypotheses that she can then test in the lab.

Video Transcript (below)

I study proteins, and proteins have been thought to have one structure that has one function or fold.

I’m studying this group of proteins called fold-switching proteins. They can actually change their structures and their functions in response to changes in the cell.

So you can kind of imagine fold-switching proteins are like a Transformer, where, in one case, the protein is like a robot that does one thing, and then in another case, in response to changes in our bodies, it becomes a car and can do something else. An advantage to this is it can respond really quickly to changes in our bodies.

Back in high school, I did not imagine myself being a scientist at all. Before going to college, I did kind of fall in love with math, like when I took calculus. I was like, “Wow, this is so cool!” It was the first time I realized that math could be useful for something beyond balancing my checkbook.

At the end of my sophomore year of college, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma. He went through multiple rounds of chemo, and it was just a really hard process — just watching that happen and thinking, “I wonder if there’s a better way?”

Some of the proteins that I’m working on that actually do this phenomenon called fold switching are actually associated with diseases — cancer, Alzheimer’s, autoimmune disease, bacterial and viral infections.

If, by the end of my life, even one successful treatment was made based on this, that would be amazing.

NLM has a really strong track record in computation. There are a lot of excellent scientists here, and I thought it would be great to be able to work with them. I’m also really grateful to have the freedom to pursue what I want to do, and I’m really happy to be here and be able to take chances that I probably couldn’t do in most other environments.

What Will 2020 Bring?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but as director of NLM, I need to keep an eye to the future.

Last month, I highlighted a few of NLM’s many accomplishments in 2019. Today, I want to devote some time to musing about what might happen at NLM in 2020.

I know that I’ll be in a new office, but I don’t know where just yet! No, I’m not leaving NLM, but as we prepare for major renovations to our Building 38, most of the staff in the building, including me, will move to other office space on campus for about two years. That will be enough time to implement a major redesign of the first floor of our 60-year-old, architecturally dramatic but not really fit-for-purpose workspace to make more efficient use of the space, add modern office layouts and meeting spaces, and modernize our HVAC systems. I’ll keep musing throughout the renovations; I just won’t be sitting on the mezzanine while I do it.

I know that NLM will continue to grow our Intramural Research Program (IRP), which focuses on computational biomedical and health sciences. We hired two new tenure-track investigators this past year and expect to add one or two more in 2020. The IRP brings together two NLM divisions, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, specifically the Computational Biology Branch, and the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, which emphasize discovery based on molecular phenomena and clinical information. I also expect to see greater alignment of our training efforts, including an expansion of the public-facing parts of our training.

I know that we’ll continue to make biomedical and health information literature available to the public, scientists, and clinicians. I anticipate a greater emphasis on public access and open science. Our entire PubMed Central (PMC) repository of full-text literature is already freely available to the world, and with the increasing interest in open access to government-supported research findings, I expect that this repository will grow. PMC will grow in new ways, too, such as enhancing the discoverability of data sets in support of published results made available with articles as supplementary material or in open repositories, and supporting greater transparency in scientific communication through the archiving of peer review documents.

I know that we’ll move many NLM resources to the cloud and continue to support efforts to make strides through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science and Technology Research Infrastructure for Discovery, Experimentation, and Sustainability (STRIDES) Initiative to accelerate discovery by harnessing the power of commercial cloud computing. This will not only offer some logistical savings, it will also increase the discoverability of our resources.

I know that NLM will play a bigger and more vital role in big science as it unfolds at NIH. Our intramural researchers are expanding the application of deep learning technologies to clinical, biological, and image data. In collaboration with the NIH Office of Data Science Strategy, we’ll build and release new tools to help researchers leverage the FHIR standard to make clinical data more accessible for research, and to improve phenotype characterization. These initiatives will accelerate data sharing by advancing standard approaches to research data representation.

I know that NLM will advance its impact on and outreach to professional and lay communities around the country. Our National Network of Libraries of Medicine has exciting plans to expand its training in research data management and to provide local health information education and support to help health care providers working with American Indian and Alaska Native populations address challenges such as mental health and HPV-related cancer.

I know that we’ll continue to improve health by improving access to data and information. Stay tuned to my Musings posts in 2020 to see what we accomplish!

Meet Our Newest Investigator: Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, Seeks a Greater Understanding of the Human Microbiome To Improve Health

In this week’s installment of Musings, I’d like to introduce you to Xiaofang Jiang, PhD, who recently joined NLM’s Intramural Research Program as a tenure-track investigator.

Dr. Jiang’s research focuses on the development of computational methods to advance our understanding of the human microbiome, which plays a very important role in our health. Her lab is using bioinformatic methods to predict what the trillions of microbes living in and on the human body do, how they spread between people, and which kinds of genes the microbiome community shares.

Turning data on the human microbiome into usable insights is a challenge that demands both knowledge of the biological literature and skill in bioinformatics. Dr. Jiang’s lab is developing approaches intended to do just that — bridge the gap between information and action.

We are fortunate to have added another strong and curious investigator to our team. I know Dr. Jiang will play an important role in accelerating data-driven discovery here at NLM!

Video Transcript (below)

I’ve had a long interest in physics and math ever since I was in middle school. But, I was discouraged to choose math or physics as major when I went to college. That’s because my family and friends thought that I would have a hard time finding a good job as a female based on what they saw, at that time, in China.

In the end, I chose Biology as my major, which opened a new door for me. It provides the foundation for my current research and led me to a beautiful world of evolution and life science.

For my Ph.D., I chose computational biology as my major because it is a major that combines my passion in computer science as well as biology.

For a long time, I observed that, for computer scientists, if they wanted to understand biomedical data they needed to have a good understanding of biology. For biologists, if they wanted to speed discovery, they required the help of computer scientists. And my background sort of bridges this gap.

I think we’re at a great stage where we can actually have the ability to turn data into actionable items that can be directly applied to medical decision-making. Data science and the microbiome combined to improve our heath. 

NLM is one of the few places where I can start my research program in data science. There is a critical mass of truly exceptional and top-notch scientists here. And I also find people in NLM are approachable. From the Director to the top scientist, you can just knock on their door and talk with them, and they are always willing to help.

NLM is the place where I can do the research that I love and enjoy, and also make a difference at the same time.